Legislative Committee hears update on Farmland Protection Program from Greenbrier Valley EDC Director Ruthana Beezley

By Matthew Young, RealWV

January 9, 2024

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – “For me conservation and development do not have to be mutually exclusive. We just need to adopt more common sense approaches, and more centric views on how to address the greater good.”

That’s what Greenbrier Valley Economic Development Corporation (GVEDC) Executive Director Ruthana Beezley told the Legislature’s Joint Standing Committee on Government Organization on Sunday, as part of her presentation on the farmland protection program.

“If you know our area, and you should, agriculture is a huge part of the heritage and tradition of the Greenbrier Valley,” Beezley told committee members. “It’s rolling farmlands speaks to a sense of place, and for me it’s the landscape of home.”

The GVEDC, which works to create jobs and investments through a variety of community partnerships, serves Greenbrier, Pocahontas, and Monroe Counties. Beezley noted that agriculture has a large, positive impact on those counties, and helps to make the Greenbrier Valley the “scenic wonderland” that it is.

“Today I’m here to give perspective on the program from my position as an economic developer and a public administrator,” Beezley continued. “I have sat on three Farmland Protection boards for nearly three years.”

According to Beezley, having spent the majority of her career in the public sector, she prides herself on being a “good steward of public funds.” As a relative new-comer to the boards, Beezley says she has learned from her colleagues by asking “a lot of questions.” 

“At the heart of all my points today is that we should be careful not to use public funds for projects that are going to make future public improvements more expensive and time consuming,” Beezley said. “There are certainly ways in which we can find the highest and best use of our land to make both conservation and development work.”

“There are varying ways for local farmland protection boards to fund conservation easements,” Beezley continued. “Each board has its own policies and programs. Even the three counties that I serve are not exactly the same.”

While each board differs slightly, Beezley explained, they are all funded by local transfer taxes. State and federal funding can then be matched to the local transfer tax funds. 

“As you would expect, from each layer (of funding) above the local funding, there are additional restrictions, and additional limitations,” Beezley noted. “As such there are boards […] that have stopped using federal funds all together for easements because of these limitations. And while federal funds stretch the local dollar, […] it creates a federal interest in local property. […] This federal interest is forever.”

The “dominating concern,” Beezley further explained, is that infrastructure projects, such as water lines and broadband extensions, are significantly hindered by conservation easements. 

“Once purchased, an easement can’t be bought back from the landowner,” Beezley added. “So if a property has that federal interest, it’s not condemnable.”

Beezley said that the National Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) has a process for the modification or termination of easements. However, as reported to her by an agency representative, the NRCS rarely approves such requests. 

“If funded through local or state, eminent domain is an option,” Beezley noted. “But again, eminent domain is not an easy process. The state authority has an eminent domain policy in which it says it will vigorously defend easements that it holds from any eminent domain encroachment, whether it’s private or public parties.”

According to Beezley, Greenbrier, Pocahontas, and Monroe Counties have all adopted a “utility strip” policy, ensuring that space will be held back from all easements, guaranteeing room for possible future utility placement. The property owner also has a say in what utilities would potentially be placed in the strip area. While Beezley believes this to be an acceptable compromise for easements, for unestablished roadway right-of-ways, Beezley said, “There’s not a solution, and there needs to be some thought about how those are handled.”

“I’m talking mainly about utilities,” Beezley noted. “I’m not trying to site an industrial facility in the middle of farmland. I’m talking about necessary infrastructure for growth. For farmers – for everyone – for the public good.”

The second concern Beezley addressed with committee members, a concern which she said for her had been a “hard pill to swallow,” is the placement of approximately 600 acres surrounding Greenbrier Valley Regional Airport into the farmland protection program. Beezley explained that the property already carries restrictive easement, and its placement into the program could cripple the airport’s potential for future expansion.

“I’m sure a lot of folks in this room understand the importance of airports, and the potential for bringing economic development is large,” Beezley told committee members. “I agree that property owners have rights. But when you are expending public funds, the public good should come first. If the land owner wants to conserve property, there are other ways that do not use public funds.”

Beezley added that not only did she vote against the property being placed in the Farmland Protection program, but the area surrounding the Greenbrier Valley Airport has thus far been the only property whose program placement she has voted against. However, Beezley was on the losing side of that vote. 

“It’s the only place the airport can expand,” Beezley said. “Are there plans to do this in the next five, 10, or even 20 years? No, but we have one airport in a three-county region, and we have thousands of acres of farmland.”

The property surrounding the Greenbrier Valley Regional Airport. Photo by Stephen Baldwin, RealWV.

“If the commission approves this request, which I think they’re directed by their attorney to do – to abide by their appointed board’s recommendations – more than $1 million of public funds will potentially restrict the growth of the public owned airport,” Beezley explained.

In closing, Beezley expressed her confusion surrounding the Farmland Protection program’s lack of provisions which encourage commercial farming. The program exists solely to guarantee the conservation of land.

“I get it, that’s not how property law works,” Beezley said. “And the phrase ‘no farm, no food’ is valid. Some would amend that to ‘no land, no farm, no food.’”

“I also point to the growing number of indoor facilities that grow food in response to the growing concerns over climate change, or just market changes,” Beezley continued. “These facilities, although agricultural, would not likely be allowed on land protected for agricultural use because they would violate the impervious surface restrictions. We have seen a big decline in farmland since the 50’s and 60’s, which is why we have this program. I think that the civil authority should be proud of all the farmland that they’ve protected in Pocahontas, Greenbrier, and Monroe.”

“I have no specific recommendation for you to consider today,” Beezley advised committee members. “I’m just here to provide information on what’s happening at the local level with farmland from an economic development perspective. Many of these issues have been an ongoing topic at our county boards, and I hope we find solutions and better ways of protecting farmland that is not at odds with public projects.”